A primary source is something to be. Especially when we’re talking about the cultural phenomenon that was The Beatles. Allan Williams was there from the beginning and it was with great sadness that we all learned of his death, at the age of 86, yesterday. An ubiquitous presence over the years, on Mathew Street and beyond, Williams really could tell you why. By Ian Prowse.
It was 1976 when my mum brought a tatty looking paperback into the house called ‘The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away’. You’re gonna’ read a book with that title aren’t you… and I did, about four or five times by the time I was 25. It was compelling because it was set in familiar streets. It was fascinating because it harked back to a late fifties town that was receding into the memory, the end times of the old Liverpool as the clearances kicked in. It was also a brilliant read because the central character was so likeable, even if he told you how marvellous he was himself (constantly) throughout the book!
Allan Williams was a mythical figure in my life, then, many years before I actually met him. The book itself is a twilight world of dance-hall violence, shebeens (what the hell were they?!), Seel Street and Slater Street before Mathew Street caused anyone a second glance and Allan as the hard put upon organiser/promoter of every two-bit band in the city. The Beatles at this time could not have been more uncool, more passe and more irrelevant. Remember, punk was happening: no Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones. But that didn’t matter to me. The world that Allan was describing – the dirty old Mersey tunnel, the cops forever pulling him over drunk in his Jag’, Lord Woodbine and Upper Parliament Street – all of it was mesmerising to this lad from the overspill town across the river (and still is). The fact that John Lennon also endorsed the book in a poorly spelled letter on the back only added to the wonder of it all in my young mind…
Decades later, following in the footsteps of the beat pioneers and blasting out music myself in many a city centre hell hole, I’d see Allan propping up the bar in The Grapes on Mathew Street. We’d nip in after rehearsing around the corner in Crash during the nineties with Pele and there he would be, holding court on all things Fab. I was the only person I knew who had read the book, so I didn’t know if others were as buzzed by the whole thing as I was. Maybe to them he was just drunk old Allan and I was just being a wool? To me, though, he was one of the pivotal primary sources in the entire fairytale, he could tell you what they were really like and what Macca had from the chippy as they all piled into the van to head for Hamburg. Someone needed to sit him down and tape every last thing he had to say about ‘them’ (what wouldn’t we give to have the thoughts of Shakespeare’s boozing partners?).
Later on, ‘Does This Train Stop On Merseyside’ poured out one afternoon in 2002, and when I finished Allan was in there. It wasn’t planned – but you can’t write a love letter to the city and not have the Fab Four. I suppose I didn’t want to overtly mention them, so I subconsciously channelled the greatest cultural phenomenon the world has ever seen through him… which is probably the greatest compliment I could have paid the dear old Welshman. And, if you know, you know.
The song has been covered by over fifty different artists since then and I’ve taken great joy in telling some of them Allan Williams stories when people have asked about the lyrics. Later still, I found myself living (I still do) in the Mathew Street area and seeing Allan was a daily thing for six or seven years… later in the day, he’d be the worse for wear from the vin rouge and you ran the risk of getting a proper tongue-lashing for just even looking at him. I’ve picked him up off the floor of Mathew Street on many occasions… he was of the hardiest Welsh peasant stock though and despite perhaps struggling with dipsomania, he was still rockin’ well into his eighties. You can’t say fairer than that.
I suppose it looked to the outside world that he was haunted by The Beatles: that they had long flown the Mersey coup, turned the world upside down and were now living in New York or Monte Carlo or St. John’s Wood, while the old gang were still tragically traipsing down The Grapes in the dark northern rain never having gone anywhere. He seemed to take it all full on, though, enjoying the notoriety and revelling in the information only he could summon up, while suffering absolutely no fools at all. He could be immense company and everyone loved him – he did enough to get barred one hundred times from The Grapes, but the barmaids were brilliant with him. I told him on a few occasions, whilst we were sat in The Grapes, that I’d put him in my song; but he’d bark at me: “No you didn’t, Amsterdam did that!” I’d try and explain I was Amsterdam… but I don’t think it ever went in.
I remember one dull afternoon in particular. The pub was empty, with just three of us sat at the bar, and we’d bought Allan a red wine – which usually gave you about half an hour of question time before another would be required. It went quiet after ten minutes or so, then my mate I was with said across the bar: “What was he like, Al’?” He never looked up, or asked who he meant, he just grabbed the stem of his glass with both hands, stared down into his drink and said: “He was in a lot of pain.”
Despite all the bluster, he knew who they were. We’ll miss you around these parts Mr. Williams… they should take you down Mathew Street one last time.
Allan Williams (1930 – 2016)
Pic by Gavin Trafford / Trinity Mirror